Marie Ponsot, Poet and Winner of National Book Critics Circle Award, Dies at 98
After a promising start as a published poet in the 1950s, Marie Ponsot put her career aside. She was a single mother in New York City, with seven children to raise. But she did not stop writing. She filled notebooks with her poems — and then stashed much of her work in a drawer, showing it strictly to friends.
It would be almost a quarter-century before her poetry began to re-emerge, and when it did, she found wide acclaim.
By the end of her long life — she died on Friday at 98 — Ms. Ponsot had translated dozens of books, published seven volumes of poetry, won the National Book Critics Circle Award, taught at Queens College and, in 2012, been elected to the Academy of American Poets.
She died at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell hospital in Manhattan, her daughter, Monique Ponsot, said.
Ms. Ponsot was first published in the 1950s by Lawrence Ferlinghetti — the Yonkers-born poet who championed the Beat poets from his celebrated San Francisco bookstore, City Lights — in the same series as Allen Ginsberg.
The two had become friends in Paris, where Ms. Ponsot met her future husband, Claude Ponsot, a painter, while she was studying at the Sorbonne.
Though Ms. Ponsot (pronounced pon-SO) came under Mr. Ferlinghetti’s wing, she hardly wrote in the freewheeling personal style of Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and other Beats.
“Ponsot is a love poet, a metaphysician and formalist,” David Orr wrote in The New York Times in 2002 in a review of “Springing,” a volume of her collected poems. “But she is neither sappy nor tedious nor predictable.”
Her first book, “True Minds,” was studded with love poems to her husband. Its title echoed the first line of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments.”
It would be her only book for nearly 25 years.
Ms. Ponsot harked back to “True Minds” when she resumed publishing in 1981: For the title of her second collection, she again drew from Sonnet 116’s opening line, calling the volume “Admit Impediment.” By then she, and her poetry, had been tempered by divorce and years of single motherhood.
The collection’s opening poem, “For a Divorce,” announces what had befallen those “true minds” of 1956. Addressing Mr. Ponsot, it begins:
Death is the price of life.
Lives change places.
we ever married, I smile
and mention the arbitrary fierce
glance of the working artist
that blazed sometimes in your face
but can’t picture it.
“Admit Impediment” had come together with the help of a friend and professor, Marilyn Hacker, who took the manuscript in a battered interoffice envelope to the Knopf offices in Manhattan, where it found its way to the poetry editor Alice Quinn. She immediately accepted it for publication.
“Admit Impediment” earned praise for its clean but raw lines and its elegance and intimacy in revealing family life. In one poem, “As Is,” Ms. Ponsot writes of a woman cleaning her house after the death of her mother:
The house of my mother is empty.
I have emptied it of all her things.
The house of my mother is sold with
All its trees and their usual tall music.
I have sold it to a stranger,
The architect with three young children.
Things of the house of my mother,
You are many. My house is
poor compared to yours and hers.
My poor house welcomes you.
Come to rest here. Be at home. Please
Do not be frantic do not
Fly whistling up out of your places.
“Admit Impediment” was followed in 1988 by a third collection, “The Green Dark,” and in 1998 by another, “The Bird Catcher,” which brought her national attention and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
“Marie is a classic writer,” Ms. Quinn said in an interview in 2012. “When you read her, you feel the strain of Donne and Hopkins, of someone truly immersed in the English tradition. But here were poems about her mother, about marriage and divorce, about motherhood. She was reckoning with a full life of responsibility. Her work showed kinship with others under stress.”
Gerard Manley Hopkins was one of Ms. Ponsot’s heroes. She often spoke of her Roman Catholic faith and in verse paid homage to Hopkins, a Victorian-era Jesuit priest. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, the Harvard professor and critic Stephanie Burt compared Ms. Ponsot to Hopkins in her endeavoring “to see in each plant, each animal, each sort of weather, a unique instance of Providence.”
In one poem she tells Hopkins, referring to God, “Loft him Halo him / Prize him high, pen in hand.”
New and decades-old work continued to emerge. When Deborah Garrison, who replaced Ms. Quinn at Knopf, began planning a collected works in the late 1990s, she said, she was overwhelmed by Ms. Ponsot’s unpublished stash.
“They’d been in a drawer,” Ms. Garrison said, “but were sparklingly fresh.”
Ms. Ponsot had written in obscurity but indefatigably, Ms. Quinn said, recalling Ms. Ponsot’s maxim: “There is always time to write one line of poetry.”
Marie Birmingham was born on April 6, 1921, in Brooklyn to William and Marie Candee Birmingham. Her mother was a New York City public-school teacher, her father an importer, first of wine and Champagne, then of olive oil and cigars during Prohibition.
Marie attended Richmond Hill High School, in Queens, and St. Joseph’s College for Women, in Brooklyn, before earning a master’s degree in 17th-century literature at Columbia University in 1941.
During World War II she lived in the West Village in Manhattan and worked at a Doubleday bookstore until a car hit her and fractured her femur. After recuperating, Ms. Ponsot and a friend — who became her sister-in-law — sailed for postwar Paris, where she worked as an archivist for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, known as Unesco, and studied at the Sorbonne.
Mr. Ferlinghetti, too, was studying there, and the two lent each other books and shared poems. In Paris she also met the modernist writer Djuna Barnes as well as Julia Child, who was becoming enthralled with French cuisine. She met Claude Ponsot, who was studying painting with Fernand Léger, in a bar.
After marrying and having a child, a girl, the Ponsots, with a second child on the way, returned to the United States in 1950 and moved in with Ms. Ponsot’s parents in Queens. Mr. Ponsot did not speak English and worked only sporadically. Ms. Ponsot supported the family through freelance translating and writing for radio.
She also pursued poetry, publishing work in Poetry and Commonweal magazines. By the mid-1950s, Mr. Ferlinghetti had established the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco and begun publishing a series of poetry books. He accepted Ms. Ponsot’s “True Minds” as the fifth in the series, after Ginsberg’s revolutionary “Howl and Other Poems.”
By 1961 Ms. Ponsot was raising seven children while teaching at Queens College, and her marriage was dissolving. The divorce was finalized in 1970. With her parents’ help, she acquired a Victorian house in Jamaica Hills, Queens, and developed a writing regimen.
“I wrote 10 minutes a day,” she said. “I did it as if it were commandment.”
In addition to her daughter, Monique, she is survived by six other children, Denis, Antoine, William, Christopher, Matthew and Gregory; 16 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.
Despite her interrupted career and personal struggles, Ms. Ponsot expressed no regrets, except for the loss of some memories — “stones at the bottom of the river,” she called them — after having a stroke in 2010. She had for many years taught classes in memorization techniques.
Ms. Ponsot was 88 when a collection, titled “Easy,” was published in 2009.
One sonnet from the book, “We Own the Alternative,” is in the voice of a woman who acknowledges age but refuses to lament. “Old’s our game,” she says, “mere failure to be young is not interesting.”
A final collection of her poetry, “Collected Poems,” was published in 2016.
Ms. Ponsot remained a believer in poetry as something that needed only nurturing to flower.
“A mother teaches language by encouragement,” she said in an interview. “I think we learn anything worth learning in much the same way.”
She added: “Anyone can write a line of poetry. Try. That’s my word: try.”
Mariel Padilla contributed reporting.
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